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Congregationalists

Congregationalism is a movement in the Reformed tradition of the Protestant Reformation that emphasizes resting the church polity in individual congregations. Congregationalism traces its origins to England, where Puritans in the seventeenth century were eager to replace the episcopal governance of the Church of England with a more democratic alternative. Puritan settlers in New England brought Congregationalism to America. In the 1640s, the Puritans gained power in England, allowing Puritans in New England to organize Christian communities around autonomous churches which associated together in regional synods. Envisioning a church polity where all Christians in a community organized in a single congregation, Puritans established state-supported churches in most New England states. Reestablishment of the monarchy in the 1660s shattered the Puritan dream of a congregational church underwritten by public funds. The First Great Awakening in the 1740s exposed fissures in the Congregational establishment, as the evangelical and liberal wings differed over how to respond to the revivals and the nature of the church. Concerned with the drift of liberals away from traditional Calvinist theology, evangelicals abandoned the established church and formed separate churches, leading to the breakdown of the Congregational establishment, and beginning of religious denominations. Congregational churches supported the American Revolution, but disestablishment accelerated after the war. Congregationalists considered a union with Presbyterians in 1801, but the Presbyterians rebuffed the plan of union, citing the liberal drift of many Congregational churches. Unitarian churches split off in the early nineteenth century, further eroding the power of Congregationalism. Despite declining numbers, Congregationalists had an important impact on politics, education, religion, and reform in pre-Civil War America. The Congregational form of church polity influenced the development of democratic traditions in the United States. Committed to a trained ministry, Congregationalists established Harvard College and other institutions to prepare ministers for their pulpits. Congregational ministers played a prominent role in the Second Great Awakening and in the subsequent missionary impulse to evangelize America and the world. Congregationalists became the leaders of reform movements in the nineteenth century, and many became the most outspoken opponents of slavery.

J. Gordon Melton, ed., Encyclopedia of Protestantism (New York: Facts on File, 2005), 161; Glenn T. Miller, "Congregational Churches," Dictionary of American History , rev. ed. (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1976), 2:169-70; Daniel T. Jenkins, "Congregationalism," Encyclopedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Congregationalism, Accessed 4 May 2022.